June 5th, 2013 at 10:00 am
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5 changes to diet: boosting elders’ health

by Dorian Martin

Since he’s moved in with me, Dad and I have a “deal”: I cook most nights but we bring in take-out two nights (and Dad pays). That deal has actually been a good thing for him, primarily because when he lived alone, his food choices were fairly poor. He ate a lot of canned soups and creamed corn, ham and cheese sandwiches, and cereal. Since moving in with me, he eats more vegetables, whole grains, fish, healthy fats like olive oil, and fewer processed foods. And it turns out that this type of improved diet is important for all elders if they want to age well.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics points out that nutritional needs change as people age. “For seniors, it is particularly important to stay well-hydrated with water and choose a variety of foods from all five food groups to help your body get the nutrients it needs, especially calcium and vitamin D, fiber, B12, potassium and better-for-you fats,” said Ruth Frechman, a registered dietitian nutritionist and the Academy’s spokesperson.

The rainbow approach to better senior nutrition

It’s important to encourage an elder to eat a healthy diet. And if you have control over what they’re eating, small changes could make a significant difference. So what are the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ recommendations? Here goes:

  1. At every meal, make sure that half of the plate is covered with colorful fruits and vegetables. When selecting and preparing produce, opt for colors like green, red, yellow, purple and orange. Fresh produce is obviously great, but if you don’t have time to prepare it, feel free to use frozen vegetables and fruit. You also can use canned produce as long as you double-check the sodium content, which is often high in these products.
  2. Serve different types of protein. Choose lean meats, poultry and fish as well as legumes, beans and peas.
  3. Encourage the elder to eat at least three one-ounce servings of whole grains daily. (A one-ounce serving is equal to one piece of bread.) Whole grains include whole-wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, oatmeal and brown rice.
  4. Opt for healthy unsaturated fats instead of solid, unsaturated fats when cooking as well as at the table. Healthy unsaturated fats include canola oil, grape seed oil, olive oil, avocados and nuts.
  5. Encourage the elder to consume at least three servings of low-fat dairy that has been fortified with vitamin D. Good options include low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese.

Food for thought

Ohio State University dietary recommendations for seniors remind us that we need fat for good health, as fats provide energy and prevent our bodies from using protein as a source of energy. The National Institutes of Health suggests fat sources such as nuts, seeds and fish, and the NIH reminds us to get vitamins and minerals from eating wholesome foods whenever possible.

You can find more tips on cooking for seniors in the article Food planning and preparation challenges in caregiving. And I wrote another blog post about our efforts to eat more vegetables through membership in a community supported agriculture program.

Making these small but important changes to daily meals can support your loved one’s health as he or she ages. And the good news is that these changes also can make a difference for you and your family, too.

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